The Death of Arms Control

The US and Russia have stopped all substantive cooperation in the field of arms control, in terms of both implementing existing treaties and negotiating future agreements. There is little likelihood that this cooperation will resume any time soon, leaving both nations locked in a potential nuclear arms race unconstrained by the limits of arms control treaties. The potential for nuclear conflict is greater, as a result, than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

In the early moments of the Biden administration in February 2021, the US was able to agree with Russia a five-year extension to the New Start treaty with only two days remaining before it expired. New Start, negotiated by the Obama administration in 2010, represents the last remaining strategic arms control agreement in place between the US and Russia. The US, during the Trump administration, withdrew from the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019, while the administration of George W. Bush had withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 2002.

Speaking to the press in 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration would seek to use the five years of the New Start’s renewal to seek an agreement with Russia that further reduced the nuclear arsenals of both sides.

“Especially during times of tension,” Blinken noted that “verifiable limits on Russia’s intercontinental-range nuclear weapons are vitally important. Extending the New Start treaty makes the United States, US allies and partners, and the world safer,” Blinken added. “An unconstrained nuclear competition would endanger us all.”

Despite the extension, all was not well with the New Start agreement. Russia had serious concerns about US compliance regarding the conversion of B-52H heavy bombers and Trident II submarine launchers to make them unable to fire nuclear missiles. According to the Russians (and readily admitted by the US), the conversions were not irreversible, meaning that the US could, in short order, bring the “decommissioned” bombers and launch tubes back into service. The US claims that the treaty text does not define precisely how the decommissioning was to be accomplished, and that the US was in technical compliance.

Adding to these disagreements was the issue of on-site inspections under the treaty. Each side is permitted to conduct up to 18 inspections per year; before being halted in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, a total of 328 inspections had been carried out by both sides. By the spring of 2021, the US and Russia agreed that inspections could resume. Yet, when the Russians attempted to carry out an inspection in July, the aircraft carrying the inspection team was denied permission to fly through the airspace of European countries due to sanctions banning commercial flights to and from Russia in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Russians cancelled the inspection.

Later, in August, the US tried to dispatch its own inspection team to Russia. The Russians denied the team permission to enter, citing issues of reciprocity — if Russian inspectors could not carry out their inspection tasks, then the US would be similarly barred.

The US has periodically raised implementation-related questions and concerns about New Start with Moscow through diplomatic channels, according to the State Department, but has determined annually that Russia has complied with its treaty obligations.

Bilateral Commission

Under the terms of the treaty, the US and Russia can convene twice-annual meetings of a body known as the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC), where issues such as the decommissioning methodology or inspections could be discussed at the technical level by experts. The last meeting of the BCC took place in December 2021, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the aftermath of rhetoric by both Washington and Moscow regarding the potential employment of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine (with the US claiming Russia was preparing for that very possibility, and Russia rejecting such claims while reminding the US and Nato of the conditions under which Russian release of nuclear weapons was possible), US and Russian diplomats began preparations to reconvene the BCC for the purpose of getting inspections back on track and resolving the Russian concerns over decommissioning. When Russia balked at conducting the BCC in Geneva — contending that Switzerland, given its stance in support of Ukraine, could not be deemed a neutral party — the US agreed to change the venue to Cairo, Egypt, with talks scheduled to begin on Nov. 29.

However, at the last second, Russia pulled out of the meeting, citing the ongoing conflict in Ukraine as the reason. Speaking to the press, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov noted that, “there is, of course, the effect of what is happening in Ukraine and around it. I will not deny it. Arms control and dialogue in this area cannot be immune to what is around it, and the bigger picture — which is rather complex and on the whole disturbing — has affected this.”

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova further elaborated, declaring that the BCC talks could not be separated from “geopolitical realities,” and that the decision to postpone the talks was directly related to “the extremely negative situation in Russian-American relations that was created by Washington and continues to deteriorate steadily.”

So far, no date has been set for a rescheduling of the BCC.

In a statement on Dec. 9, US Secretary of State Blinken spoke of the difficulties in the relationship, noting that “there are … aspects of the relationship where we continue to have some contact, for example on arms control, and we will continue to do that as necessary to try to advance the American national interest.”

The reality, however, is that there is no known contact between the US and Russia on arms control. Russia’s Foreign Ministry appears to have been taken by surprise by Moscow’s decision to walk away from the Cairo BCC, suggesting that the instructions came from the Kremlin itself — and that any possible resolution may have been elevated to the level of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart, Joe Biden.

Russia’s Approach

The same day that Blinken issued his Dec. 9 statement, Putin made some comments of his own that hinted at the changing realities governing Russia’s approach toward strategic nuclear conflict, and the potential ramifications for the future of US-Russia arms control.

Speaking to reporters, Putin alluded to the recently published US National Security Strategy, and, in particular, the nuclear posture policy contained within. According to Putin, US policy does not exclude the possibility of a “disarming” nuclear first strike, while Russia’s nuclear posture policy prohibits such an action. Given this discrepancy in policy positions, Putin said it might be time for Russia to “think about adopting the best practices of our American partners and their ideas for ensuring their security.” He added that “if a potential adversary believes it is possible to use the theory of a preventive strike, and we do not, then this still makes us think about those threats that are posed to us.”

The New Start treaty was negotiated by Russia based on its existing nuclear posture, which dictates force structure and deployment models. If Putin is indeed serious about redefining Russia’s nuclear posture, then the existing New Start treaty may no longer be a useful tool — Russia would need to develop the technologies and weapon systems suitable for such a task, unconstrained by treaty restrictions.

The New Start treaty expires in February 2026. It takes years to negotiate new arms control agreements. As things stand, Russia and the US seem unlikely to be able to replace the New Start treaty with a new strategic arms treaty, given the complexities associated with incorporating new weapons systems and emerging technologies into a balanced strategic force matrix acceptable to both parties. The Russians have new weapons systems that are in the process of being deployed, and the US is on the cusp of modernizing its nuclear force. Ideally, such developments would be part of a continuing dialogue about force structure and compliance verification. Such a dialogue is not occurring today, making any future negotiation all the more complicated.

Failure to renew New Start would open the door to a world where both the US and Russian strategic arsenals are untethered from the constraints of arms control, while at the same time are being reconfigured for the most destabilizing nuclear postures imaginable — preemptive nuclear first strikes designed to neutralize an opponent’s nuclear retaliatory capability.

The risk of nuclear conflict between Russia and the US is greater than any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and — with relations inflamed by the Ukraine crisis — neither side appears to be in a rush to engage in the processes intended to forestall such an outcome.

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